WASHINGTON — Sara Volz gasped in amazement when she heard her name called. The 17-year-old finalist had just been named the $100,000 grand-prize winner at the March 12 awards gala of the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search.
Volz, a bubbly high school student from Colorado Springs, Colo., rushed across the stage of the National Building Museum’s Great Hall, a cavernous room gussied up for the black-tie event with spotlights, golden tablecloths and red roses. Decked out in a lavender satin dress, the teenager laughed and smiled as blue and white balloons rained down on the winners.
Volz’s project, an experiment to pump up algal oil levels for use in biofuel, began in her bedroom. The teenager grew algae in 40 glass flasks underneath her loft bed, and used an herbicide to kill cells that dribbled out only tiny amounts of oil. Over multiple generations of algal growth, the protocol resulted in cells with naturally elevated levels of oil production.
Volz tended her algae garden almost every day, checking it regularly for evaporation and keeping it on strict light-dark cycles. “It’s basically like having a pet,” she joked. This fall, Volz plans to head to college at MIT.
Her winning research topped the projects of 39 other Intel STS finalists. In total, the competition received 1,712 entries from 42 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and two U.S. overseas schools.
“SSP and Intel could not be prouder of the Intel Science Talent Search finalists of 2013,” said Elizabeth Marincola, president of SSP and publisher of Science News. “We eagerly look forward to following their contributions in the coming years in every field of human endeavor.”
At the ceremony, the Intel Foundation handed out $630,000 to the 40 finalists of the Intel STS, a competition run by the Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News, and first established in 1942. Intel began sponsoring the competition in 1998.
The Intel Foundation awarded second place and $75,000 to Jonah Kallenbach from Ambler, Pa. The 17-year-old figured out how to better predict how different drugs latch onto proteins. His work could give researchers a new method for designing drugs that target specific molecules.
Third place and $50,000 went to Adam Joseph Bowman, 17, of Brentwood, Tenn., who constructed a plasma gun in his garage from parts he bought on eBay. He also designed an inexpensive fiber optics system to follow the plasma’s movement. “I’ve always enjoyed building things,” he said. Bowman has been refining his plasma gun since he was 14.
Hannah Kerner Larson, 18, of Eugene, Ore., won fourth place and $40,000 for her project on a type of abstract mathematical structure called fusion categories. Fifth place and $30,000 went to Peter Kraft, 17, of Munster, Ind., who created 10 new molecules that could help improve hydrogen storage in fuel cells.
Sixth and seventh place winners Kensen Shi and Samuel Zbarsky each took home $25,000. Shi, 17, of College Station, Texas, designed an algorithm that helps robots navigate around obstacles. In his free time, he said, he likes to solve Rubik’s Cubes. Zbarsky, 17, of Rockville, Md., worked on a mathematics project that could help make computer networks more efficient.
Eighth, ninth and 10th places each came with $20,000 and went to Brittany Wenger, Akshay Padmanabha and Sahana Vasudevan. Wenger, 18, of Sarasota, Fla., created a computer software program to analyze breast cancer biopsy samples; Padmanabha, 16, of Collierville, Tenn., devised a method for detecting seizures; Vasudevan, 16, of Palo Alto, Calif., worked on a math project to speed up computer algorithms.
The other 30 finalists each received $7,500, and along with the top 10 spent a week on an all-expenses paid trip to Washington. On March 10 the finalists presented their research to the public at the National Geographic Society. Finalists met President Obama briefly during a visit to the White House on March 12.
The finalists elected Alexa Danzler to receive the Glenn T. Seaborg award, a distinction honoring the late Nobel Prize–winning chemist and longtime Science Talent Search judge.
These 40 young finalists will change the world, said Jane Shaw, former Intel Corp. board chairman. “It’s such an honor to help them launch their careers, right here this evening.”